Yet another face of torture

Yet another face of tortureTorture video stirs fury over Egypt penal system
New questions raised about human rights record of U.S. ally

The man in the video lies on the floor on his back, naked from the waist down, with his feet hoisted into the air, surrounded by pairs of anonymous black boots.

The camera captures an act of brutality before zooming in until the man’s face, scrunched with agony, fills the frame. He cries out for mercy from his tormentors, but within seconds the words give way to screams of desperation. The abuse continues, and the camera holds steady.

The rare footage, shot on a cell phone camera inside a Cairo police station in January 2006, is the most striking evidence to date of what Egyptian and international human rights organizations have long called an epidemic of torture in the country’s penal system.

The video, which appeared on YouTube in November and quickly made the rounds of the local blogosphere, has sparked outrage in recent weeks, casting a harsh light on the deteriorating human rights situation in one of the United States’ closest allies in the Arab world.

The United States gives Egypt around $2 billion annually in military and development aid, and the Bush administration has come to see it as a crucial Sunni Arab ally in its escalating conflict with Iran. In recent years, Egypt has also emerged as a prime destination for “extraordinary rendition” — the controversial U.S. policy of kidnapping suspected terrorists and secretly sending them to be imprisoned and interrogated in countries that are known to practice torture.

Torture in Egyptian prisons has a long history, but human rights experts say Egypt’s participation in extraordinary rendition gives it an unspoken immunity from international criticism.

“Some countries, including the United States, are involved in torture and are benefiting by having Egypt assume the role of interrogating suspects,” said Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “They can’t send people here to be tortured and then take a stand against it.”

In 2005, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said the United States had sent 60 to 70 Egyptians back to their home country for interrogation, including Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Islamist preacher who goes by the name of Abu Omar.

Abu Omar was kidnapped in 2003 near his home in Milan and flown to Egypt, where he remains imprisoned without any formal charges lodged against him. His case sparked outrage in Europe, and an Italian court is trying 25 CIA agents and a U.S. Air Force officer — in absentia — along with nine Italian secret service agents for their participation in the kidnapping.

In November, Abu Omar smuggled out of prison an 11-page handwritten letter in which he described the abduction and the torture he had received since being brought to Egypt. According to the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the letter, he claimed to have lost hearing in one ear as a result of repeated beatings and described being strapped to an iron device known as the “Bride” before being shocked with electric stun guns.

Montasser el-Zayat, his lawyer, said that although the authorities are no longer physically torturing Abu Omar, he continues to endure psychological torture from being held in solitary confinement with few visitors, and that he has tried to kill himself on three occasions.

El-Zayat, who has represented several prominent Islamists, said Abu Omar was never affiliated with any al Qaeda or any other organization. “He was only an activist, and he delivered Friday sermons in the mosque,” el-Zayat said.

While high-profile suspects have attracted the most attention, experts say the majority of torture victims in Egypt are, like the man in the video, ordinary citizens without political affiliations and that torture, once reserved for political dissidents and Islamist militants, is now applied across the penal system.

After the video surfaced, a local newspaper identified the victim as Imad Al-Kabir, a microbus driver who was brought in after intervening in an argument between his cousin and two plainclothes police officers. Al-Kabir was not accused of anything at the time, and he has said the police filmed the incident and sent the clip to local microbus drivers merely to humiliate him and to intimidate others.

“Torture has become endemic to Egyptian prison facilities, detention centers and police stations,” said Elijah Zarwan, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch in Cairo. “That the police videotaped everything and then circulated it among the public shows that they know they can get away with this sort of thing. It’s yet more evidence of a culture of impunity.”

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights documented 34 cases of torture in 2005 and 27 in 2006, but Zarwan and other human rights advocates insist that many if not most cases go unreported.

Although the worst forms of torture are usually reserved for suspected terrorists, the abuse of prisoners is more often aimed at collective punishment and intimidation than intelligence-gathering, said Dr. Magda Adly, director of the Nadim Center, which counsels and treats victims of torture.

“Torture sends a message not only to the victim and the victim’s family, but to the whole society, and that message is that if you speak out, you will never see the sun again,” she said.

On Jan. 15, the center, which sees an average of 70 new cases of torture each year, submitted a list of 189 names of suspected torturers, compiled primarily from the testimony of victims, to the Interior Ministry.

Egyptian bloggers have also taken up the cause and, in recent months, have published several videos showing the abuse of prisoners. The most recent shows a young woman suspended by her hands and knees from a pole between two chairs, confessing to murder and screaming that her hands are about to break off. The woman’s identity remains a mystery, but the Interior Ministry says it is investigating the matter.

The Imad Al-Kabir video, however, remains the most graphic, and has sent shock waves through the local human rights and activist community. After a local newspaper located and identified Al-Kabir, human rights lawyers persuaded him to identify his tormentors and take the case to the public prosecutor, who has since detained two of the officers involved and scheduled a trial for the first week in March.

But what at first seemed like a triumph for human rights advocates turned into a potential nightmare earlier this month, when the same court sentenced Al-Kabir himself to three months in prison for “resisting authorities.”

“We wanted the video to be seen so that the criminals in it could get the punishment they deserved, but so far that hasn’t happened,” said Wael Abbas, one of the first bloggers to publish the video. “Instead, the victim has been punished.”

Egyptian law narrowly defines torture as acts carried out against suspects during interrogation. Since Al-Kabir was not, at the time he was tortured, accused of any crime or in the process of being interrogated, it’s unlikely that the officers will be found guilty.

The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of Egyptian security services, has denied it practices torture, and some officials have accused Abbas and other bloggers of defaming the country’s image by putting the videos on the Internet instead of taking them directly to the ministry.

Human rights experts say the government is more interested in protecting its image than in addressing the problem of torture.

“Everyone in the human rights community agrees it is a huge problem, not only in the police stations but in the entire penal system, but nothing is being done because the government refuses to recognize it,” said Hassan, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “It’s grown into a cancer, and the government treats it like a mild headache.”


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